Researchers from the UK have carried out one of the largest surveys of people’s first memories and discovered that almost 40% of people had a fictional first memory.
This study was organised by researchers from City, University of London, University of Bradford and Nottingham Trent University and it involved 6,641 participants.
Current research suggests that the earliest memories of people started around the age of three to three-and-a-half years.
However, 38.6% of the participants claimed that their memories came from when they were two or younger. 893 stated having memories when they were a year old or younger.
This was common among middle-aged and older adults.
The researchers asked for details from participants regarding their first memory, as well as their age at the time.
The memory had to be something that they really remember. It should be based on direct experience, rather than from a family photo, family story or any source.
The research team analysed the language, content, nature and descriptive detail of the earliest memory descriptions of respondents.
They wanted to assess why participants claim memories from an age that, according to current research, they cannot be established.
After the analysis, researchers found that these fictional recollections were based on portions of early childhood experiences combined with factual elements derived from family photographs or conversations.
This means that people were not recalling actual memories but rather mental representations containing portions of early childhood experiences.
The study found that 4 in 10 people in this group have fictional memories for infancy.
“Additionally, further details may be non-consciously inferred or added, e.g. that one was wearing nappy when standing in the cot. Such episodic-memory-like mental representations come, over time, to be recollectively experienced when they come to mind and so for the individual they quite simply are ‘memories’ which particularly point to infancy,” said Dr. Shazia Akhtar, first author and Senior Research Associate at the University of Bradford.
Professor Martin Conway, Director Centre for Memory and Law at City, University of London served as the paper’s co-author. He noted:
“In our study we asked people to recall the very first memory that they actually remembered, asking them to be sure that it wasn’t related to a family story or photograph. When we looked through the responses from participants we found that a lot of these first ‘memories’ were frequently related to infancy, and a typical example would be a memory based around a pram.
“Crucially, the person remembering them doesn’t know this is fictional. In fact when people are told that their memories are false they often don’t believe it. This partly due to the fact that the systems that allow us to remember things are very complex, and it’s not until we’re five or six that we form adult-like memories due to the way that the brain develops and due to our maturing understanding of the world.”
The findings of this study were published in the journal Psychological Science.